Antony Gormley’s Blind Light and the Coat Closet at LambdaMOO

Blind Light is the name of Antony Gormley‘s current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, and it’s also the title of the individual exhibit which is attracting much attention this year, an invitation to "lose yourself in light and vapour in this cloud-filled glass room that is cold, wet and disorientating".

I removed my spectacles and hooked them into the top of my shirt, then walked into the mist. Immediately my nose started running copiously and then something sharp in the air caught at my throat and made me cough. I hesitated, wondering whether the atmosphere was toxic in some way they hadn’t warned us about. I could hear other people coughing elsewhere in the mist too, but it must only have been the shock of the difference in density, because breathing was immediately easy again and I was able to continue my exploration. My skin quickly became  coated with moisture and I wondered whether my clothes would be wet afterwards (they weren’t).

I’ve been in fog similar to this before, but only when driving, never when walking. And usually in Britain, although there was one memorable moment when, driving north of Los Angeles (I think it was on Interstate 14 near Red Rock Canyon but that may be misremembering), I passed through a series of canyons burning with sunshine with the exception of one which was full of white fog, suddenly reducing visibility to just a few yards.  In the box of fog which is Blind Light, I was reminded of that cloud-filled canyon when I realised I could see nothing below my knees but thick white vapour. I held out my hand in front of me, and it was perfectly visible, but when I looked down, nothing. Then the mists shifted and my feet drifted momentarily into view before disappearing again in a swirl of white.

What does this have to do with nature and cyberspace? Quite simply because the space I was most reminded of when I was in Blind Light was the Coat Closet at LambdaMOO. Log on as a guest and that’s where you’ll find yourselfin a dark, cramped space.  It appears to be very crowded in here; you keep bumping into what feels like coats,  boots, and other people. But then as I thought about it further I remembered also that I myself built a foggy room in LambdaMOO – or rather, a foggy field, as part of a space called

_^^~^___ the fields—_____~~^_^-~~ ____^^___~~~~~~

The sky is an English grey, as if the mists of Autumn are held fast in a canopy above our heads; a canopy which at any moment might fall and surround us, billowing out to hide the stream and the trees and the tractor and the wheeling birds… until we are left alone and silent in a muffling quilt of cloud.

So Blind Light recalled my early days at LambdaMOO when every visit felt like wandering through fog yet knowing that hundreds of people were close by – you just couldn’t see them. At the exhibition, however, there was one big drawback, and that was the voices, calls and laughter of other visitors, which made it impossible to focus. I know many will dislike this idea, but I think Gormley should impose a rule of silence on people entering the exhibit. Without that, it’s not much more than a fairground ride.

Why do we watch Bear Grylls? Does Facebook make you long to be alone in the wild?

It turns out that survival role-model Bear Grylls isn’t quite so much of a wilderness guy as he makes out.  According to an article in The Sunday Times  – TV ‘survival king’ stayed in hotels – he enjoyed the pleasures of civilisation a little more frequently than might have been expected during the making of his TV series Born Survivor, where we see him devouring a wide variety of raw and live food – see the stomach-churning video on the Sky site – and doing other Tough Man things. Must have been tortuous, especially if, for example, he had just enjoyed a tasty boxed lunch from his hotel, the Bass Lake Pines Resort in the Sierra Nevada.

So why do we watch so many TV programmes about nature red in tooth and claw and why do we want to believe them? Why are we fascinated by people like Bear Grylls, with his ridiculous name and his faux wildness?  Or, for that matter, Grey Owl, aka Archie Belaney, the Englishman with the capacity for deep deep fantasy who I wrote about in Hello World and who, I suspect, enthralled my grandparents at a talk he gave in Leicester in 1930s as well as the young Richard and David Attenborough, also in the audience that night.

But I digress. There are many reasons why we fall for this, and I’m exploring them in my research,  but right now what I’m wondering about is the connection between this phenomenon and  social networking sites like Facebook. Think about it. Time was when watching TV and reading books were considered anti-social, but recently the isolation of solo consumption has taken a new turn – now it gives us respite from the endless pressures of social networking. At home, by ourselves or with our intimate friends and family, we watch Bear Grylls make his way in the wilderness alone, and we are there with him, or we even become him, our imaginations plugged into his – or at least, into his producer’s.  But log on to a site like Facebook and  you’re thrust into a noisy city. 

I’ve only been on Facebook a few weeks and as an old-time online community person I’ve been hugely impressed by the sophisticated functionality which informs me about everything that everyone I know is doing. Indeed, it can only be a matter of time before I will be informed, real time, of the exact moment when anyone takes a pee. Well, I’m quite sociable myself sometimes, and I like to be in contact with people I know, but I don’t want to be Zombie, or Compare People, or create a map of my best friends as opposed to those friends I presumably care less about. Every time I access someone else’s feature I do not want to be offered the opportunity of installing it for myself. It’s all too much, just too too much.

Bear Grylls and his enterprising TV crew at least offer me the fantasy of solitude, and that’s starting to feel preferable to the fantasy of civilisation that I’m getting on Facebook. So how can I survive in the seething naked jungle which is Facebook? Excuse me while I bite the head off this Zombie.

About The Book

I remember rising from my keyboard and walking out to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific near where I live (near Santa Barbara, California). Looking out over the Pacific at sunset that day, I felt I was on the edge of something vast and unfathomable: new media as ocean. And I remember thinking of that ‘wild surmise’ that came to Cortez at the end of Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Alan Liu Professor of English, University of California at Santa Barbara.

Nature and Cyberspace: stories, memes and metaphors is a monograph to be published in print and online in 2012 by Bloomsbury Academic.

The book brings together a complex legacy of thinking and writing about the natural world with contemporary views of computers and the internet drawn from texts, personal interviews, surveys, and of course the web itself. The result will be a narrative of the many ways in which we use our experiences of nature to situate and comprehend our experiences of cyberspace, and will include perspectives from many different countries and cultures.

Picture this:
You sit immersed in a wireless cloud, navigating your way through the folders on your hard drive. It is a floating forest of branching tree directories anchored to a root folder buried somewhere deep inside the machine. You are listening to streaming audio whilst a torrent of more music flows into your MP3 player. While it downloads, your system is organising your music library into fields within a database and generating a feed direct to your homepage. Via your Flock browser you twitter to your friends about the latest item on the newsriver then post a few paragraphs to your blog, where they join the complex trail of links and paths going in and out of your site. While you surf, it’s easy to forget that beneath you lies a creepy invisible underworld populated by spiders, bugs, crawlers, worms, and microscopic viruses, whilst above ground your transactions are hungrily devoured by sheep that shit grass before being aggregated into the Long Tail. That data trail you’re leaving behind stimulates the synapses of the global brain, which is in turn pulled towards the gravitational core of the Web 2.0 solar system… from Windows Vista: Dreaming Nature in Cyberspace

In The Practice of the Wild (1990) the poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes that the word ‘nature’ is usually interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. The ‘outdoors’, meaning the physical world, including all living things (this definition excludes the features or products of civilisation and human will), or
  2. The physical universe and all its properties (this definition includes the products of human action and intention)

The internet is, of course, a product of of human action and intention, as in 2. But could the experience of cyberspace be altering our sense of the physical world, as in 1?  I’m curious about the synergies between the virtual and the natural, especially in relation to the ‘natural’ physical. I would like to know:

  • Which metaphors and images of the natural world are commonly found in computer programming and design, and in popular computer culture?
  • What are the origins of those usages?
  • How do those usages vary between countries and cultures?
  • What conclusions can be drawn from this research, if any, about the intersections between human beings, cyberspace, and the natural world?

I’ve been working with computers and in cyberspace ever since I bought my first machine, an AmsCorrespondence_overlooktrad 6128, in 1987. Right from the start I was struck by what felt like very intuitive connections between computers and what we think of as the natural world, but unravelling those synergies has been a slow two-decade process of gradual revelations Hello_world_raw_nerveand occasional surprises. Over the years I’ve written two books directly exploring them – first, a novel, Correspondence (1992) and then twelve years later a memoir / travelogue Hello World: travels in virtuality (2004). Now I’m writing a third – The Wild Surmise.

The earlier books were drawn from my own personal experience but The Wild Surmise. will look at the wider cyberspace community and its relationship with what we think of as the natural world.

“Most people know me from cyberspace and assume that I live there. I  do spend many hours a day online, but what they don’t know is that my body is sitting outside, with my bare feet in contact with the earth. I don’t know that I could live in any other way.”  Howard Rheingold


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